In our ongoing Struggle to Stay series, we’ve been following Crystal Snyder, who works at a job-training program called Refresh Appalachia. She’s learning how to grow squash and shiitake mushrooms, while also going to a community college, working on her associate’s degree in Applied Science.
Crystal is a single mom, and it hasn’t been easy to balance school, work and family responsibilities. She was even put on work probation after an unexcused absence at work. On top of this, she’d just found out that her 18-year-old son Aaron had dropped out of high school. When we last heard from her, she was preparing for a meeting with her supervisors. That’s where we pick back up with Crystal’s story.
Crystal was devastated when she was put on work probation this past August. Up till that point, work at Refresh Appalachia was going great.
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Her boss, Ben Gilmer, said she’s one of the hardest workers at their company.
“When she’s on the job site, it’s clear that everyone else kind of steps up their game to keep up with her. She sets the pace. Which I admire a lot.”
So it seemed out of character for her when she didn’t show up to work one day. Ben knew Crystal was volunteering for Bernie Sanders in Philadelphia at the Democratic National Convention, but he didn’t know she was staying an extra two days. Crystal sent an email the day she was scheduled to work.
They asked her to come to a special meeting to talk about why she didn’t give them a heads-up sooner. And, as it turned out, it was also a meeting for them to find out if she was ok. Because Ben could tell she was having a rough time.
“At the time I think I was trying to help her with some personal financial management, some other stuff. I think that was the nature of our conversation. There’s also a big role to play here. It all adds up to this force of change that she wants to be a part of.”
Crystal said the talk with Ben was helpful. Even though it didn’t fix everything, it felt like her bosses supported her and wanted to help. They took her off work probation, and helped her to plan a personal budget. She decided to cut some unnecessary purchases.
She realized she spent $500 a month at restaurants and coffee shops. So she started cooking more, which helped.
And there was another positive change for Crystal. After all the squash had been replanted, she asked to be transferred from Cabell County to Lincoln County high school’s greenhouse. Even though it means a longer drive, the different location helped Crystal.
She likes working with the high school students and teaching them to grow food. And she gets to work with two people she’s grown to be close friends with, Colt and Caroline. (They joke that they’re the three C’s.)
They also started to grow shiitake mushrooms at the Lincoln County site -- this is the type of farming Crystal is most passionate about. Then, in January 2017, the Refresh Appalachia crew went on a retreat. All of Crystal’s co-workers in Mingo, Lincoln and Cabell counties got together for a two-day meeting.
On the first day, everyone stood in front of their colleagues to talk about their life story. Crystal was the first one to talk. She said she told her co-workers about some really scary stuff that happened to her as a child, like the time when her family was robbed, when she was 8.
“In second grade, we were robbed. My dad was selling cocaine at that point. And he had some shady friends and they knew he had a stash. And they kicked in the door. There were guns, and it was so scary. I just, I thought they were gonna kill my dad and kill us. My mom was just screaming, and we were all just screaming.”
She also told her co-workers about an earlier trauma, when she was sexually molested by a friend of her father’s.
“When I was 5, we went to Florida to pick up some weed. I remember huge black garbage bags in the back of the trunk when we went down there. But when we went down there, his friend…touched...what do you say? I said he touched my monkey, is what I told my mom when we got back. But he touched my private parts. And I told my mom and dad. They said my dad beat the guy up, but to me that just was not enough, you know? Like, they didn’t call the police because they were there for something that was illegal so they couldn’t really report it.”
But perhaps the most difficult part of this memory, for Crystal, is the fact that her parents didn’t really talk with her to talk about the abuse. “Why didn’t we talk about this?”
Sharing these stories with her co-workers marked a turning point for Crystal. She hadn’t talked about these memories with many other people, especially not with a group of about 12 other people listening.
Her boss, Ben, said her story seemed to inspire the rest of her co-workers. “When Crystal leads from her heart like that, it allows other people to access that within themselves, in a different way. And I saw that. Each of us, including myself, shared in a different way because she started off that way.”
After the work retreat, Crystal started to focus more on how much she’s overcome in life. The experience also encouraged her to start seeing a therapist.
“Learning to stop the bad thoughts and not worry,” Crystal said. “Worry does so much harm, and no good. So, it kind of forced me to snap out of it and refocus on all the wonderful things in my life.”
She's not worrying as much about politics, or climate change, or what direction the country is heading. Instead, she’s trying to spend more of her energy on making change here in West Virginia, and with her own family.
“My therapist helped me realize, just do what you can, and Ben too, what you can locally. But when she would say that, I would be like, yeah, right. Like why does that matter, what I do locally, if ….globally we have no control? But really… it does. Or at least it makes me feel better.”
Ben said he’s seen Crystal grow a lot as a person, and as a farmer, over the past year and a half.
“She’s so strong and resilient, cause she’s had to provide for herself, I think, her whole life, and protect others.”
One thing Ben said he’s continually blown away by is her ability to lead workshops in farming, and teach other farmers how to grow shiitake mushrooms. He said Crystal is a born educator.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up being a teacher you know, one day, but I’m not gonna project that on her. She’ll always be a teacher I guess no matter what she does. So, one step at a time, I know she’s focused on getting through school and doing good at Refresh [Appalachia].”
As Crystal continues to work for her goals, she takes pride in her ability to grow.
"I’m proud that I shine my light still maybe more so than maybe I would have if I hadn’t of experienced darkness. I’m a protector, and I love that about myself. I’m proud of my kids, their kindness. I’m proud to be in the field of agriculture, I’m proud to be on this journey. I don’t know where it’s going but it’s going somewhere good.”
This is where we leave Crystal, for now. A year and a half after I began helping her record her story, she’s now in her fourth semester at Mountwest Community College, and she’s loving school. Last semester, she got her first B, and she’s proud of that B. She’s aiming for an A this semester.
She also got a job promotion, and a raise, and was made a crew leader at Refresh Appalachia.
Her son, Aaron, is working on getting his Graduate Equivalency Degree, or GED. Like his mom, he said he wants to be a farmer. Crystal dreams of one day owning land, where she, Aaron and her daughter, Morgan, can have a farm together.
Music in the audio version of this story was provided by Marisa Anderson.